There’s a famous line from ‘The Replacements’ starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, where Shane Falco, played by Reeves, a washed-out all-American Quarter Back, delivers an inspiring line to his team of misfits:

“Pain heals, chicks dig scars and glory lasts forever!”

Great news indeed – but these American footballers wear pads and helmets – rugby players have very little protective clothing. Surely rugby union is far more dangerous just like casinocruise and hence is guaranteed to pay out more glory and chicks?

With Shane Falco’s inspiring line in my back pocket I trundled over to the England rugby training camp the other day to see what I could find.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine rates rugby union as more dangerous than rugby league, AFL, soccer and ice hockey, showing that, on average, about two players in every English Premiership games were lost for 18 days.

Maybe rugby players need more protective padding?

Never having played American Football and having suffered through 15 odd seasons of Rugby Union, I’m fairly undecided as to which is a more dangerous career to follow, but the concussions, scars, fresh bruises and long term groin injury does lean me towards a general bias.

Come on – these footballers wear helmets and padding, surely I play a more dangerous game – where are my chicks and glory?

Wikipedia’s American Football section tells me that increased padding has allowed players to make harder hits; though there are fewer minor injuries in American football than in other codes of football, some types of serious injuries such as spinal cord injuries are much more common. Twenty-five football players died from injuries directly related to football from 2000-2004, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Concussions are common, with about 41,000 suffered every year among high school players according to the Brain Injury Association of Arizona.

With rugby players becoming bigger and more physical, as the newly found professional era takes its effect on the game, rugby union is indeed becoming more dangerous. With more and more games time being forced upon the players too, the incidence of major injuries is becoming a common issue, one which has the potential to seriously impact the nature of the game.

Whilst we can learn somewhat from American football and their obsession with pads and helmets, it’s clear that these only help to increase the physicality, as players are able to plough into each other with greater intensity resulting in far more life threatening injury concerns.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League

Nevertheless, along with the name “rugby” in common, the two codes do have a common origin; and, for a time, were played according to almost identical rules.

The Legend of William Webb Ellis

Although games similar to rugby have been played for centuries (at least as far back as Roman times), modern Rugby football has its origins in the British Public Schools of the 1800s.

According to legend, during 1823 game of soccer at Rugby School, 16-year-old player William Webb Ellis picked the ball and ran with it towards his opponents’ goal-line. So impressed were his fellow players with this unique stratagem that they decided to adopt it as an integral feature of the game. And so rugby football was born.

Unfortunately, real historical evidence for the story is minimal. It is accepted that Ellis existed, but the type played at Rugby School in Ellis’s time was not in fact soccer, but it was a game that had a mixture of both soccer rules and rugby rules. There were no generally accepted rules, and pupils at English Public Schools often made up different variations of the rules for different matches.

So, rather than being brought into existence by the dashing and innovative action of one enterprising individual, rugby evolved over the years through a series of experiments involving the input of many people.

The Founding of the Rugby Football Union

By 1840s, the running with ball became a rule. By 1870s, the rugby clubs sprung up all over England as well as in the colonies. However, different rules were used by different clubs and the first attempt to create a widely accepted set of rules was in 1871.

Edwin Ash, Secretary of the Richmond Rugby Club said those who play the game should form a code of practice.

Ash’s initiative resulted in a meeting in January 1871 where the “Rugby Football Union” was founded, and a committee was formed to formulate a set of rules. The committee comprised three ex-Rugby School pupils, all lawyers, and their task was completed and approved by June 1871.

Rugby and Professionalism

The original union was firmly committed to Public School principles of amateurism, but in 1893 reports surfaced that the North of England players received payments for playing. 

The Union went ahead nevertheless and suspended an offending club. The Northern clubs attempted a compromise resolution that would allow payment for players when playing football instead of working (“broken time”), but the resolution was defeated.

The Rugby League

So, true to their word, in 1895, twenty-two northern clubs seceded from the Union. They formed the Northern Union, which was later called Rugby League.

This split, known in rugby circles as “The Great Schism”, was more bitter and ran deeper than most outside of the rugby world realize. It was not simply a split along philosophical and regional lines but along class lines.

Rugby union, located in the South of England and dominated by ex-Public School pupils and the Public School philosophy, was seen as the game of the establishment, while rugby league, its headquarters in the North, was seen as the game of the working man.

The Different Rules

But leaving aside the class and cultural nature of the rift for now (whole books have been written about it) the rules of the rugby union game and the rugby league game soon began to diverge.

A common misconception is that rugby league was the professional version of the sport and rugby union the amateur, but while amateurism remained nominally a principle of rugby union until 1995, the differences in the rules that evolved led to two quite distinct games.

The Rugby League was arguably the innovator introducing many changes designed to speed up the game; but fans of rugby union will of course dispute that these are genuine improvements.

Prominent amongst the changes is that in rugby league the number of players per side is reduced to thirteen, and the manner in which the game is restarted after a stoppage is radically changed.

Full details of the differences would require several pages of description; but rugby union and rugby league are two quite separate codes, and shouldn’t be confused with each other anymore than, say, rugby league should be confused with American football.


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